From grassroots action to vibrant city park

Three years ago, residents and volunteers launched a grassroots initiative to occupy a disused parking lot in Athens. The objective was to transform the derelict asphalt patch into a communal space right in the heart of the capital. Today Navarinou Park has become a popular attraction in the downtown neighborhood of Exarchia and is an example of how Athenians can combat the negativity surrounding the city.

Athens?s image, which Mayor Giorgos Kaminis has described as ?deplorable,? has taken repeated knocks over the last few years and is a far cry from the glory days of the Athens Olympics in 2004, when the city basked in praise from around the world.

However, pockets of resistance to this decay have been created throughout the capital and the initiative in Exarchia has proved one of the most successful undertaken by concerned citizens. In a city where green spaces are limited, it is little surprise that residents have welcomed the flourishing of Navarinou Park.

Ellie Papadopoulou, who has lived in Exarchia for several years, explains that ?back in 2009 it was the new place where communal creativity was expressed and a chance to snatch public spaces back from the Athenian chaos. Now it continues to be an inspiring place. It blooms literally and culturally every day.?

From 1907 to 1972 the site was the location of a clinic named the Geroulaneion Institute. In 1972 the clinic closed down and the Technical Chamber of Greece (TEE) bought the building intending to develop its headquarters on the plot of land. TEE?s plans never materialized and after demolishing the old clinic the land was used as a parking lot until 2008, when the lease expired. The expiry of the lease stoked fear that TEE was going to build on the land. So, in March 2009, residents of Exarchia seized the land and within hours work had begun on creating a green urban space among the gray apartment blocks that surround the square.

The occupation of the land was essentially illegal but without authorization from TEE, the police had limited grounds for intervening. In the past, police have also pursued a policy of ?treading lightly in Exarchia? to avoid antagonizing local youths and self-styled anarchists who often clash with officers.

In December 2008, Exarchia became the center of prolonged and intense rioting triggered by a police special guard shooting dead 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos. The murder took place just a street away from where the park is located and played a significant part in bringing together people from different backgrounds to cooperate on a project like the one to create Navarinou Park.

Three years on, the park is going strong, attracting visitors from beyond the confines of Exarchia. In the summer, films are projected free of charge and there is a vibrant, friendly atmosphere. The park hosts a number of events ranging from communal cooking, musical, art and children?s events.

A local shopkeeper whose store looks onto Navarinou Park told Kathimerini English Edition that the addition of a green space had helped improve the neighborhood. Although many believe the park to be a positive development for Exarchia, the organizing committee has often had trouble with what it terms ?the cleanliness of the park and respect for the neighbors.? Nevertheless, a number of volunteers regularly take on the task of cleaning and maintaining the space.

On the whole, Navarinou Park is well run and incidents involving crime or anti-social behavior are rare. The City of Athens has so far showed no desire to intervene in the way it is run. Only a five-minute walk away is the neighborhood of Omonia, which has become synonymous with serious crime, vagrancy, and drug abuse. Kaminis has called on Athenians to help with attempts to improve the quality of life in the city center. The communal effort at Navarinou Park seems as good an example as any of the benefits of residents working together to make their urban environment better.

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